Center Court

I am not a sports enthusiast. There was a phase when I got in Sports enthusiasts. For those 4-5 years, I used to ardently compile a cricket scrap book full of pictures and all statistics of almost all the major active players. At that time I would watch all the major tennis grand slam matches as well as major international soccer tournaments. This phase came suddenly and went suddenly. Books have been my true love before and have continued to be even after that phase. As far as playing sports goes, the only way I scored runs was by distracting the bowler to laughter with my amusing stance. If humor was my signature in cricket, violence was my signature in football. Whether I got the ball or not, I would definitely get the player. Such has been my harrowing experience with sports. So I am hardly the right reader for a sports novel. But since Sriram is a good friend on virtual communities and his previous book "Rain" was pretty decent, I ended up picking this one as well. And what a book this turned out to be! A complete page turner! A theme that does not interest me at all and main characters who are not at all like me. Yet the story hooked me from page 1 and kept me hooked till the last page.

Right plot, right characters, right language, right narration - this book has it all. The main characters are Shankar Mahadevan, India's top Tennis player, the first one to ever hold a chance at a Grand Slam. The venue is Wimbledon, the Mecca of Tennis. Shankar's father and coach form the main supporting cast. The story flows seamlessly taking the reader from match to match as Shankar makes his way through the 7 rounds of the tournament with the interval between each match interspersed with Shankar's back story, his social life, tit bits about Tennis history and the author's general philosophy about life. The author has managed to blend all of this elements very well and the reader's interest does not sag for a moment. There is quite a lot of drama going on both on court and off court. The notorious paparazzi  seeking sensational news, the corrupt sports federations, girl friends form the off field drama. Each player, each match is so different from the other - one player is a cheat, one player is a genius, one an ambitious upstart, one a complete jerk to name a few.

The author also manages to share his philosophy and impress on the reader his view of sports as an art form. He also manages to show us his vision for sports in the country. That was the story is not just entertainment - there is a message as well. The ending was also very good. After all the start I feared the author will wind up the story to a tame end. Luckily he did nothing of that sort.

I guess no review is complete without nitpicking somewhere and finding some flaw. So here goes - I felt probably the voice of the father and the voice of the son both seemed similar in some places. They did not seem distinct enough. Sometimes it felt as if Sriram himself was launching into a monologue of sorts that his friends on social media and probably in real life as well are used to.

Overall, a fantastic read that I would strongly recommend to just about anyone.

The Alphabet Killer - a review

Detective stories tend to follow a regular pattern - a crime, an interesting investigator, clues, investigation and final apprehension of the criminal. Now the way each author makes their work unique is through adding special elements to one or more of these elements. Say an unique crime not committed before. For example a person killed without any signs of violence or money just disappearing from a safe without it being tampered in any way. This is like magic. The story is about demystification of the magic. The crime may also be interesting in a different sense that it is a reflection of some aspect of society. The next is the investigator. We have Sherlock Holmes, a relentless scientist who treats a crime like a Mathematical problem, Poirot, a relaxed unassuming gentleman who contemplates his way through or Father Brown, who looks like a dumb priest but takes everyone by surprise by the intellect he hides beneath is exterior. Then we have the clues. It is somewhat related to crime. What does one make of steps that go one way but no return steps. What does one make of victim's hair and nails being scraped off. Then last but not the least the whole investigation procedure. In some cases, it can be a very technically intense pursuit, giving reader insights on how real crime agencies work. Then there is a pursuit of a psychological trail. There is also piecing together various facts like solving a puzzle. And last but not the least, a hulk like investigator who bashes his way through problems. In some of the stories, the criminal becomes the object of interest, either due to their intellect, their brutality or their motives which win reader's sympathy. Then there is this whole tone of narrative and the mood it creates - it can be philosophical, poetic, humorous, Gothic horror to name a few.  So in appreciating a crime novel I would try to look at these elements.

So coming to "The Alphabet Killer" by Prachi Sharma, the most interesting elements are the investigator and the social aspects of the crime. The main investigator is Mia Santos is a strong woman like a bull in a China shop, who has strong views and can go to any extent to uphold her view. She is human with human frailties, passionate about feminism, dedicated to a cause and given to quick anger. Despite being a strong feminist, she does not suffer from monomania and wants to enjoy life as well which probably will make readers relate to her. The opening scene introduces her nicely with a scene where she beats up a bunch of potential rapists. She also has a history about which hints are dropped initially and are unraveled fully towards the end. That is probably the most interesting aspect of the story.

As far as social aspects go, this book focuses on crime against women and the challenges faced by those fighting for feminist causes. It also focuses on social stigma faced by women who are victims of sexual abuse. The author also keeping with the asks of the modern times creates main characters who are not sexually prudish.

The author shows good amount of competence with language and the book has been copy edited and proof read. However the narration is neutral and does not attempt to create a mood or evoke strong emotions. The plot as such is straightforward. Regular readers of crime would find the character of the criminal, the way he commits the crime and his motives quite familiar. The investigation as such is also pretty straightforward - regular things such as footprints and video footage. There is also an element of romance in the story. I guess that should appeal to the population who love to read romance genre.

Overall it is pretty breezy read and a decent one time read for people who like crime genre and are looking for something in contemporary Indian settings. 

Of Frogs and Men

Ho Ho Ho! Wait! No. I shouldn’t be doing this. I am not Santa Claus. I am God. I should be more serious and sober. Let there be light. Now does this sound better? Go forth and take my word across the seas and spread my message to all the heartens. What nonsense is all this? All this sounds so pretentious. All you humans spread crazy rumors about me and attribute all kinds of weird things to me. And I can’t even go down and clear the air. For if I do that I would have created undeniable proof of my existence. That would be the beginning of the end. As long as there is doubt of my existence you would hedge your bets by trying to get things done on your own while praying to me on the sidelines. But the moment you know for sure that I am out there looking out for you, you will give up all initiative and line up at my door with your begging bowls. As it is I am sick of all the sycophancy and self-abasement. Anyways if I get started about humans, I can keep ranting for eons. Instead let us talk about more interesting beings – frogs. What about frogs now? I created them for one. And I had attempted to give them intelligence. Frogs and intelligence? Yes. Not the ones you see now. Those were the days before I created you humans. Now don’t give me those incredulous looks! I know all that stuff that goes around about me creating the entire world in six days and six nights and taking rest and all that. But come on! Think logically. How can someone get it right in the first attempt? Now. Now. Don’t flatter yourself. I am not saying I got it perfectly right even now. But at least I did a better job than I would have without all those attempts with intelligent animals, men of wood, men of mud and all those. So coming back to the point, this is about those intelligent frogs.

Strange are the ways of intelligence. As it is now with men, it was with the frogs back then. I gave them everything. I gave them plenty of fresh clean water to play around in, lot of flies to feed on and enrich themselves, no threats whatsoever to endanger their lives. In short I had created a paradise on earth for them similar to the one for humans you talk about in your holy book - the place where this chappie Adam was supposed to have lived in along with his girl Eve singing kumbaya under apple trees till the day a snake came along. But along with all these gifts I gave them intelligence. And that kept eating through their insides and they wanted something more. They started praying ardently to me. Initially I tried to ignore the prayers. But they persisted and it began to get very irritating. These prayers float right up to heaven and keep buzzing like annoying flies. Eventually I have to grant a boon to whoever it that is sending them up to get rid of them so that I can recline in peace and contemplate about my own glories.

So I appeared in the dreams of the froggies. “Behold me! I am your God. The great and terrible. The creator of the seas and oceans. The one who sustains all life on this earth. The one who will snuff all of you out on the day of judgement. Why doth thou seeketh me?”

I always enjoy a bit of dramaticism. And admit it – I am sure you like it too. Do you want your God to just come up to you casually in T-shirt and bermudas and ask, “So whaddya want, dude? Why you buzzing me with your annoying prayers?”

So the frogs all prostrated themselves before me and said, “Oh, Great Lord, we thank you for all the gifts you have bestowed upon us. But we still are not happy. We live a life of chaos. We need a king. Please give us one.”

Now don’t ask me how they prostrated themselves in their dream and all. I don’t want to get into metaphysical discussions about reality and dreams now.

“But why do you want a king for? If you want a leader, elect one among your own number. And get on with life.”

“No, no, great one. That does not work. We tried it. But there is too much instability and disorder. People keep switching allegiances and there is too much in fighting, lobbying, corruption. Leaders keep changing at the drop of a hat. Every leader is so insecure about their position that they focus more on holding on to the chair than doing something for the development of frogkind.”

“But why do you want the leaders to do something for the development of frogkind? Can’t you do it yourselves? Isn’t it better without leaders breathing down your neck and putting pressure on you to do things you don’t want to do and putting stumbling blocks in your way every time you try to do something you like?”

“No, my Lord. We are lost without a king. We badly need one. Please give us one.”

Do you see what is happening? Does this all sound all too familiar? Despite all my attempts, this fatal desire to be lead was the part I could not completely weed out. So you humans too suffer from the same affliction. But then you do have free thinkers who are free of this. Maybe I should study them and use the findings in my next round of creation. But you, my dear friends are stuck with it. “Hard luck, guys,” is all I can say.

So I decided they had made up their mind so firmly that even their creator could not change it. So I decided to humor them. The next morning when they woke up, a huge log dropped in the middle of their lake with a huge splash. It was not just a plain log – it was a painted one with a facial features and stuff - you know like those effigies that some of you folks in the South Americas made.

I was left in peace for some time. But not for long. Once again the buzzing started. The frogs were at their prayers again. Damn it! I mean come on. I am God. I can say ‘damn’ Technically I can’t indulge in blasphemy you see. It would lead to some kind of paradox that would disrupt the space time continuum and stuff like that. Again, I tried to ignore. But I had indulged them once. So they were not going to spare me till I indulged them again. Now do you see why I am so reluctant to answer your prayers?

I once again appeared in their dreams and delivered my usual opening address. This time I added a bit more fire in my speech. Threatened them with hell fire, damnation and all that. It was fun seeing them quake with fear. But they were back with new demands and complaints in their obsequious tone.

“Lord, this king does nothing. He is silent all the time. We want a king who does something.”

Again, the whining! If I had my way, I would make whining the eighth sin.

“But isn’t it nice to have a king who listens to you, contemplates over what you have said and gives an open answer to your problems and queries that you can interpret yourselves?”

“Yes, my lord. But someone who never does anything does not feel like a real king. A real king should take decisive actions, take charge and lead from the front.”

“But don’t you think such a king will curtail your freedom? Won’t you find it stifling?”

“No, great Lord. Not at all. We will feel proud to be ruled by a king who can proudly flaunt his 56 inches chest on behalf of all of frog kind to show all other animals frogs are your greatest creations and make frogs great again.”

I knew just the king they needed. I had held back from sending them that one. But now after they had stated what they wanted in so clear terms, it had to be done.

So I let loose the king stork. No intelligent bird was this stork. But it knew it’s job. And went about it with clinical precision from day one. A diligent worker it was that stayed awake eighteen hours a day to carry out its responsibilities. It went after the weakest frogs to weed out the weaklings to make the frog race strong. Then it went after the disruptive and rebellious elements to keep the frogs united and strong as a tribe. Then when they were none left, it went after whoever were significantly different from the rest to bring about the purity of race. By now the buzzing had started again. But the thing was this time the clamor did not grow as the increase in prayers matched the decline in frog population. And soon there came a time when the decline overtook the growth and from then on the buzzing began to drop till one day the buzzing stopped completely. That was the end of the race of intelligent frogs. I created frogs again. But this time it was those dumb frogs that you see now. And they have lived and flourished and continue to do so. Seems like with intelligence, the self-destructive streak also gets eliminated. But I have given the intelligence to you humans now and I can sense a kind of déjà vu feeling about this whole thing.

Anyways I wait and watch. Ironies of life have a surreal beauty to them and it is one of the joys of creation I savor.

Birds of Prey - Review

Crime used to be my famous genre during my childhood days. In addition to the children’s crime stories – Famous Five, Five Find Outers, Secret Seven, Three Investigators, Hardy Boys – I also started Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. So much so that I wanted to do my graduation in forensic sciences or in some electronic technology that helps be build cool surveillance gadgets used by detectives. But somewhere along the way, my interests changed and I went over to the realms of science fiction and fantasy. Since then I have not read much crime except for the works of Keigo Higashino which I found really brilliant. But overall I am not a hardcore crime fan. But Archana Sarat being one of my really good online friends, I picked up her ‘Birds of Prey.”

I found the story to be extremely gripping and I finished the entire book in 2 sittings – the journey to my office and the journey back. The scenes are short and the story keeps moving all the time. The language is not unnecessarily complicated. Overall the books was an easy read. It was not an easy one though in terms of subject matter. It deals with the extremely uncomfortable topic of child abuse. The criminal in this story is a victim of child abuse. On one side the author starts the story of a policeman called back from voluntary retirement to pursue the case of disappearance of a few men, that has been baffling the police force. And on a parallel track, we get glimpses of the criminal’s childhood days and the suffering she had to undergo. The author makes the reader really feel for her and almost makes the reader also want to seek revenge for everything done to her. In parallel, the author tries to make the reader root for the detective as well by showing his conflicting priorities – family versus profession. He is extremely passionate about his profession but his wife is concerned for his safety and wants him to leave the job. However between the two, the criminal wins hands down.

Since we know who the criminal is beforehand, it is not exactly a whodunit. The suspense is more around discovering what crime the missing men committed to deserve the attention of this criminal, how the detective through his investigations finds his way to the criminal and in the flashback how the criminal managed to eventually get out of her situation and reach her current position.

Details are clearly the author’s strength. The author makes the entire story come alive with her attention to even the minor details in the descriptions and in the natural dialogues. One can clearly see the story come alive right in front of one’s eyes. That combined with the fast pacing, makes the book a completely unputdownable read.

One area that I felt could have been better was the plotting. While the pacing and the horror of the theme keeps you so engaged that you miss these points while reading, when you reflect after you finish the final chapter, lot of things don’t look so plausible. As I said I am not a connoisseur of crime genre. But from what little I know, I feel this is a genre where plotting should be water tight – both from the point of view events leading to the crime, the circumstances and motivations of the criminal as well as the investigation procedure. Here I found too much depended on serendipity and overall suspension of disbelief was not very easy.

Overall I would say this has been a wonderful debut by this author and I look forward to her next books. It is a really light engaging read and I would recommend any reader with a couple of hours or so to kill to pick it up. There is not a single dull moment and you will just watch the time whiz past you.

You can buy the book here on  Amazon in India or here globally.  

Pishacha - Review

Horror is not a genre I normally favor. But when I heard an Indian author has attempted this genre, I was curious to pick up the book. And Maya’s New Husband did not disappoint me. Having seen the author’s display of writing skills in Maya’s New Husband, picking up his next offering ‘Pishacha’ was a no brainer. Pishacha in some ways has the horror much more toned down making the book accessible to a wider audience. While it too has its share of killings, the author does not delve deep into the minutiae in graphic detail. Also a ‘Pischacha’ does not feel as real to a reader as a flesh and blood mentally deranged man who could be living in our midst passing off as a normal colleague or neighbor.

The premise of the story as the title suggests is about an undead being returning from death to claim the love of his life from the days of his mortal existence. She is now reborn in modern times while he is a supernatural being who has to kill humans and feed on their flesh and blood to keep himself animated. The story takes us through the Pishacha’s journey to bridge this gap between life and death – a journey filled with blood and gore. Meanwhile we are introduced to the life of the lady in question – “Neetika”. We get to know of her boyfriend, her father and her friends. We also see the impact the Pishacha’s intervention has on her life and her attempts to understand and deal with the effects of the same. We also seem to have a seemingly unrelated arc of Nakul going on that ties in nearly towards the end.

The best thing about Neil’s works is the writing. The reader can cut through his writing smoothly like a knife through butter. The whole narrative flows smoothly without any bumps and potholes – the reader can finish the entire book in a single setting. The language level is just right – neither high flowing and flowery that has you rushing for a dictionary every second page nor completely watered down to cater to the tastes of the lowest common denominator. The descriptions are also pretty well done and gives the reader a holistic audio visual olfactory experience.

The other thing I like about Neil’s works is the novelty of the concepts in his book and how he draws from not so well known aspects of local folklore. Last time he took on the concept of aghoris. This time he takes on the concept of pishachas. He has also built a bit of mythos around what exactly is a pishacha as against the other paranormal beings. In this work, we encounter other beings such as rakshashas, dayans and kalinis as well.

People who watch Bollywood paranormal flicks may find the general direction of the plot quite familiar. Ancient love story in the time of kings. Love triangles. Tragic untimely deaths. Characters returning in present times as paranormal beings and reincarnates. Where Neil differentiates himself is in the quality of writing and a bit more fleshing out of the logic of paranormal occurrences. Of course as a hardcore science fiction and fantasy buff, I still find the paranormal world building logic not strong enough. But then this book is for the regular folks not the fantasy buffs. So from that angle it stands notches above Bollywood.

As far as characterization goes, this is again an area of Neil’s strength. He has managed to create multiple memorable characters, all of who remain in the reader’s mind even after completing the book. But one grouse would be that I did not relate to any of the characters of the book. So I was not overtly concerned about the fate of any of them. In fact, the sadistic part of my mind was hoping all characters would commit mass seppukku together towards the end. Of course the pishacha would have found it challenging being already dead. But then he was trying to become mortal again.

Overall a pretty engaging light read that I would recommend to most people. And I am eagerly waiting to see what Neil comes up with next after Aghoris and Pishachas.

Rain - Review

Around 12 years back, I read a book called Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham that made me rethink my priorities in life and see the whole idea of the meaning of life from a new perspective. It is one of those rare books that I can claim influenced me deeply. Somehow reading Rain by Sriram Subramanium reminded me of that book. Of course the protagonist's character and circumstances that lead him on a unusual journey in the physical work are quite different in the two books. However both the journeys in the real world, lead to bigger journeys in the spiritual world for the respective protagonists. Here again there is a deviation in the final destination of the two. But parallels do exist.

Let me start with the things I liked most about the book and move on to things that in my opinion could have been better. The character of Jai Dubey seemed very real and someone I could relate to. The clash between ideals and monetary requirements for maintaining prestige in family circles, the disgust with certain ways of the world while being forced to play along, temptations and human failings are all things every person goes through at some point in his or her life. All these were brought out really well. The secondary characters -his wife Sarika, his in laws, his friends, his coworkers, the street boy Raju and his mother, his clients, local politicians - every one of them was really well etched and one can remember them distinctly after finishing the story. An unique primary character and distinct secondary characters are definitively one of the strongest points of the book.

I found the language to be quite good and the narration flowed smoothly. While remaining simple, the language was still elegant with absolutely no crassness. The pacing was perfect and the book can easily be finished in a single setting. The author manages to maintain the interest throughout, leading the reader effortlessly from one event to the other. The use of right amount of Indian words at appropriate locations also manages to give the local flavor.

The plot is interesting. The protagonist is an architect who on one hand wants to opt out of the rat race and the demands of  society but at the same time wants to prove himself to his wife's family. The story starts off with the protagonist taking an ambitious and challenging project to earn money quickly to build a house for his wife. But there are challenges and early rains can play spoil sport to all his plans. Thus the title of the story. As the story progresses, we discover what role the rains play in the protagonist's life and the strange twists and turns it takes him through as well as the mental demons from his dark past and the role they play.

The book also has some philosophy in it, most of which I tended to agree with. However I felt the philosophy did not blend seamlessly with the story line. At places the philosophy seemed to stand apart as a digression from the story. I felt the same about some of the detailed descriptions as well. While the descriptions were really well done, recreating most of the story surroundings in the reader's mind, at places they seemed to distract from the plot.

Talking of the plot, I did feel there were a few loose ends. Quite a few of the minor elements in the story did not find closure. Probably the author intended it that way. But I generally like everything to be neatly tied up. The other thing I found was some of the decisions by the protagonist seemed abrupt. I am not sure though if it is a problem with the plotting or just the character of the protagonist to take impulsive decisions without much thought that I am not able to relate to, given my own temperament. Also some of the events in the story seemed a tad too cinematic to me - the ones that involved local politicians and policemen. It is of course possible that is how the real world works and I am not exposed to that side of the world.

I also felt the title did not do proper justice to the story. It somehow seems too drab and immensely forgettable. It does not intrigue the reader and grab the attention. Nor is it related to a deeper philosophical undercurrent running across the story.

Overall I would say it is definitely a book worth reading. Possibly a second reading as well. It managed to remain light and breezy while at the same time giving some food for thought. 

A Frog's Tale

We frogs are such pitiable creatures. Always living in fear. Fear of storks. Fear of snakes. Fear of humans. Living in ignorance. You must have heard of stories of frogs in the well. I used to be a frog in the well too. Once upon a time. Not anymore. Now I have roamed the length and breadth of the land and am much wiser. I at least hope so. After all I am no longer a frog in the well. So it surely must mean I have become wiser? No? If not what was the moral of the whole story? Anyways all that is a story for another day.

Today I was reminiscing the times I was still a frog in the well. Literally and figuratively both. We were a huge family of frogs. Things were going well till some of our fellow frogs started turning arrogant and elitist. These fellows had gone out of the well a bit and seen some world and come. So they started acting as if they were all knowing and the rest of us were idiots. With every passing day their behavior was becoming more and more intolerable. Most of us were just honest, hardworking frogs who went about our business. But these frogs would not just let us be. They wanted to poke their nose everywhere. They wanted to challenge every one of our customs and traditions. They did not miss a single opportunity to belittle us. We did not know what to do.

Then one day a group of frogs came to meet me.

“Something has to be done about these frogs. We can’t let them continue like this. They will destroy all our old ways and bring all of us to ruin.”

“We are already running short of food and they are talking of inviting toads and lizards to our well.”

“Indeed if there is drought in the land above, it is their bad luck. Probably a result of their sins in their last birth. We have been leading a virtuous life. That is why God has not taken away the water from our well. Should we now share it with those sinners?”

“The lizards and toads are highly despicable creatures. The lizards are poisonous and sneak about creepily. And the toads! Even their very mention gives me shudders. They are full of disgusting warts and they shoot out a disgusting green stuff if offended. They will make our lives a living hell.”

I patiently listened to all their complaints. Some of them were bigoted and too rigid in their ways – you know the proverbial frog in the well kinds we were talking about earlier. They just did not want anything to change and they blindly hated any animal that was not a frog. Maybe even frogs from distant lands or even frogs from other wells. Such people have always been there. And we have learnt to live with them. But there were others with genuine concerns as well.

“Some of our own children are starving. How can we share with lizards and toads?”

“We would at least feel good and noble if they treated us well. But these new age frogs call us all kind of nasty names. We are feeling so low. They make us feel like we are the filth of the earth.”

“And what is harm in following traditions? We don’t harm anyone. The traditions give us a sense of comfort. A sense of continuity with our past. A sense of stability. Why do these frogs want to come and disrupt all that? If they don’t believe let them not. We are not asking them to believe or follow. But can’t they just let us be?”

A good many of the frogs were raising concerns. So I decided something had to be done. These new frogs, when they were not berating and belittling us, told us lot of fascinating stories of the world above. Some of them were scary too. One of the stories was about a creature called “the snake”. One could sense a fear in their tone at the very mention of this “snake”. If there was anything that could keep these insolent rogues in place, it was this “snake”. Maybe I should go to the world outside and find one. The very idea of leaving the well scared my wits out of me. But I had to act for the good of my fellow frogs.

I broached the idea to my fellow frogs and they agreed enthusiastically.

“Yes. I think that will teach them a lesson.”

“If they fear this creature, then it must surely be good. Anything they like is sure to be despicable and anything they hate and fear is sure to be good.”

“Go on, my friend. Go and find this creature.”

So I set out on my journey. I had heard they frequented holes. So I went around every hole I could find shouting, “Brother Snake, are you in?” After lot of unsuccessful attempts I got a response at one of the holes.

“Who is this now disturbing my sleep? Go away.”

“I am a frog. I have come to invite you over to our well.”

“A frog? What the bloody hell! A frog actually comes looking for a snake! What has the world come to? ”

“Please listen me out, friend Snake. I know frogs are real scared of your kind. And that is precisely the reason I have come to you.”

I poured out my entire tale of woe. About those frogs returned from the world above and their newfangled ideas. Their constant belittling of our ways. Despite the initial rudeness, as I launched into the story, the snake listened keenly. He seemed to become more and more amiable and understanding with every passing moment.

“I understand your plight, friend frog. These kind of traitors exist in our kind too. The snakes – as we call them figuratively. Of course not us literal guys. The figurative guys are the trouble in every species. I would be glad to be service to you. Tell me what you want me to do.”

“Can you come to the well with me and give these fellows a fright? That will shake them up and bring them down to the earth.”

“Of course I would be glad to. But you know it is possible that after I scare them once and go away, they might revert back to how they were before.”

“You are right. What do we do?”

“I suggest I come and live in your well. I don’t eat insects, slugs and snails. So I won’t be a drain on your resources like those evil toads and lizards you mentioned. Just take me into your well and find me a nice hole. I will just settle there and live peacefully, now and then emerging out to give those adversaries of yours a good scare.”

“That would be wonderful, Mr. Snake. I never thought you would do so much for us.”

“I am always there to help the little creatures. Come, let us go!”

The methods adopted by the snake were rather draconian but the results were good. I had just wanted him to frighten those fellows. But Mr. Snake just gobbled away a couple of them. When I made known my concern, the snake reassured me. “Don’t worry. Actions speak louder than words. I had to make an example of a couple of them to strike fear into the hearts of the rest. Don’t you see a marked improvement in their behavior?”

He was right. There was no more any spring in their leaps – that arrogance, that dominance. They had mellowed down greatly and some even cowered in fear. I guess loss of one or two of them was not such a bad thing in the interest of the greater cause.

But the thing was Mr. Snake kept gobbling away at them. I again remonstrated. But he again mollified me. “You know what my friend – the key is to just not let up on them. You need to keep the pressure on. The minute you turn lenient, they will once again show their true colors. Just listen to me. I know what I am doing.”

Somehow it did not feel right. So I called my fellow frogs for a meeting. Some of the more hawkish ones were still buoyant. “Mr. Snake is right. Let him clean out all the vermin.”

But most were tentative. “But is there something we can do?”

I said, “We are still so many in number. We could get together and throw out the snake. But it doesn’t feel right to do that to someone who is doing us a favor.”

So we decided to let things be and continued on. Then one day, all our foes were wiped out and to our shock and horror the snake gobbled one of our numbers. Can you imagine? He gobbled one of us. Us who were the ones who welcomed him in the first place!

I again went to speak to the snake. When I spoke up, he looked indignant. “Come on. I have done you such a great favor. Don’t you guys owe me a reward? See it this way. That fellow I gobbled was a weak, puny one who was a burden to you guys anyways. The lesser they are of these free riders, the more the rest of you all can live in prosperity. “

This didn’t sound right at all. But I was not going to argue with Mr. Snake. He no longer looked all that benevolent any more. I was feeling a bit scared.

As the days passed by, our members began to disappear down the snake’s maw with increasing regularity. So the few of us who were left called a meeting.

“There is nothing we can do now. We are too few in number now to have any hope against him. We are done for.”

I thought for a while and said, “The only way for us is to try and escape from this place.”

Some of the more rigid, traditional ones refused to budge. “This is our well. We have lived here from ancient times. We can’t leave it.”

“God made us to live in this well. If we leave, we shall incur the wrath of God.”

So we had no other way but to leave them behind. So I discussed with the rest and made my plans. I again approached the snake. “Mr. Snake, our numbers have dwindled so much that hardly any of us remain?”

“And you blame me for it?”

“No, no. Not at all, Mr. Snake. In fact we appreciate all that you have done for us and we owe you this and more. We were actually thinking more about you. What would happen if all of us were wiped out one day? Wouldn’t you have to go hungry?”

Mr. Snake got a worried look on his face. “I never thought of that. It is a valid concern. What do I do then?”

I continued on. “So we thought some of us will go out as scouts and welcome more frogs from outside. You know a road trip of sorts where we hand out brochures and spell out all the attractive features of our well and stuff.”

“Very good idea, my friend. I like the way you think. Please go ahead.”

Thus it came about that some of us managed to escape the clutches of this vile monster. I know what you are all thinking. It was all my fault. If I had not invited the snake in, none of this would have come to pass. I agree. But see it from my side. I was just a frog in the well. How could I have known of the dangers the creatures like these snakes posed. I mean we could have listened to those smart frogs who had been to the outside world and all. But who can put up with constant humiliation! Couldn’t they have told us things in a more soft polite way? Did they have to rub it in all the time? I know some of us were rigid and totally closed of mind. But they were the ones who remained in the well to die. As for the rest of us we might have listened and even eventually turned around to their view point  if but they had been more sympathetic of us and our ways instead of being so high handed and treading over our toes all the time. They were so full of themselves that we hardly ever even  heard their words. All we could hear was the arrogance and a general contempt towards us. How could we have just let that pass? We were not saints. We were not even intellectuals. We were just frogs. Frogs in the well.

Anyways what has happened has happened. We have all learnt our lessons. The hard way.

Solomon Kane and the Medusa Curse

“This upstart thinks he is the new God of love. And it almost seems as if he is. The girls are all so crazy over him.”

“Calm down, son! And tell your mother everything right from the beginning.”

Adonis poured out his entire tale of woe to his mother Aphrodite. Solomon was a theater artist who had made his debut with the iconic play “I made love.” From thereon he had gone on to do more plays - “Are you my brother’s keeper?”, “Stone Blossoms” and “The stud”. With every passing play his popularity had been growing by leaps and bounds. All the girls were totally charmed with his melting puppy eyes and were laughing themselves silly over his feeble jokes and childish pranks. He was becoming the new icon of love and the God of love feared being displaced from his position.

“This is nothing new for us, my dear. Many of these earthly beings forget themselves and try to raise themselves to the levels of Gods and Goddesses. We have shown every one of them their place as we will this new lover boy.”

“I want to make him pay dearly for his audacity, mother.”

“Do you remember Medusa, dear?”

A smile lit up on Adonis’ face.

                                                                    * * * * * * *

“I am home, dear.”

A comely lass came rushing towards him and flung herself into his arms. After passing his hands over various regions of her anatomy, he loosened his grip and stepped aside to pull out his sweaty shirt. The anticipation in the girl’s eyes to feast themselves upon his ripping muscles and well-toned abdomen was unmistakable.

But the moment his naked skin came into view, the admiration and anticipation turned into horror. Like in a trance she walked towards him, pulled out the belt from around his waist and began to whip herself with it.

“Please stop, dear. Please stop!”

But she went on whipping herself and red welts began to appear all over her exposed skin. He snatched the belt from her.

“What are you doing?”

The front door was open and there stood one of his theater colleagues Roy of the Obers.

“Is this how you abuse one of our fellow colleagues, Solomon? I never thought this of you.”

“No. I didn’t….”

Her trance broken, she ran into the newcomer’s arms and he led her away. The whole incident had scared her so much that she began to avoid Solomon. Whenever he tried to approach her or Roy to explain, they raised the alarm. The story of him being caught mistreating his lover had spread all over town and people were turning against him.

One of the things he liked to do when he was upset was to go for a ride in the woods. That had such a soothing effect on him. He decided to take a ride to forget all the worries over his lover’s puzzling behavior.

The woods were lovely, dark and deep. But it was summer and the sun too beat on relentlessly, its rays cutting their way relentlessly through the canopy of trees. He was sweating profusely and his shirt had become wet and sticking close to his body. He decided to pull out his shirt to make himself more comfortable.

The moment he pulled out his shirt, a couple of deer that were strolling leisurely in the vicinity, stopped in their tracks as if turned to stone. Then right in front of his eyes, they impaled themselves on their antlers and fell dead. Before he could recover from the shock of what he had seen, he was surrounded by the king’s guards.

Everyone refused to believe his story. He was accused for hunting in the king’s forests and was thrown in prison like a common criminal. His luck was going from bad to worse. But all was not lost. The king happened to be a patron of theater and arts. So in view of Solomon’s exemplary services towards the cause of development of arts in the kingdom, he decided to issue a royal pardon.

Though he was a free man, his popularity had now dipped to its nadir. If we walked on the streets, people just shrank away like cockroaches into their holes when a dark room was lit. His fellow actors avoided him like plague. No playwrights came up to him new play offers.

He too began to confine himself to his quarters, spending his time brooding over his fate. Why had this happened to him? To one such as him with heart of the purest gold! He decided to lie low and avoid coming in public view. Maybe with time everything would blow over and he would regain his place in the people's hearts. After all they were human as was he. And short public memory was the essence of being human.

The next few days passed by uneventfully. Then one day he was overcome by a desire to go on a ride around the city. He decided to do the tour in the night when the streets would be empty. That way he wouldn’t have to face the hostile crowds.

As he rode through the streets old memories flooded his mind. The days when his chariot passed through the busy streets and how everyone would throng around it to catch a glimpse of him. He would then take off his shirt and wave to them and the girls would go into hysterical shrieking. Oh  for those days! If but just one more time he could experience such a moment. Still lost in those dreams, he had pulled of his shirt and waving to the empty streets.

Before he knew what was happening, two men in ragged clothes emerged out of nowhere and fell in front of the chariot’s wheels.

“Stop! Stop!” he yelled. But it was too late. The heavy wooden wheels had rolled over the two of them and instantly relieved them of their earthly miseries. Now he would be blamed for this too. And this time it was murder. What was he to do? The faulty was in his stars.

                                                                           * * * * * *

“That was a master stroke, my dear son. You have made the Gods proud. Even Athena could not have thought of something so diabolical.”

Adonis had a contented smile like a cat that had had its fill of cream.

“I got the idea from your mention of Medusa, mother. I just improvised upon it."

Kissing Circles - Review

For long I have stopped taking books for reviews. But now and then I take up one if someone I am well acquainted with has written a book and wants me to review it for them. So here comes my review of the book “Kissing Circles.” by Nitin Tewari. I picked up the Kindle copy . So I can’t comment on the cover design, paper texture and other production values. Therefore I will straight away get on to the story.

My overall impression about this book I would say was quite positive. I found this book much better than many of the popular Indian best sellers published by the big publishing houses while catering to more or less the same audience. Why I found it so, we will get there presently and also have a look at some of the things that could have greatly improved the book.

The overall story line was quite sound. The theme of two North Indian boys going to Kerala to join as trainees at an IT company and through their association with a local colleague, getting involved in a high Adrenalin drama pertaining to a local tradition is quite an interesting theme. The author has done a good job taking us through the characters of the two North Indian boys, their Keralite colleague and the protagonist of the local drama – the captain of one of the boat teams for the annual race. He displays very good understanding of the characters of his protagonists and brings out their desires, aspirations and thoughts very well. The drama builds up nicely from around a third of the book and manages to keep the reader hooked.

The other strong element of the book is the research the author has done on the local culture and traditions. We get to learn the history of the local people, their traditions, the origins and the social milieu. So if nothing, somebody who has read this book would have learnt something useful about Kerala. 

The language in the book is decent but quite inconsistent. At some places, it looks simple and in others it looks more refined. I am not sure if this has to do with the author’s innovative approach of having each chapter told from a  different point of view - first person narrative of the main characters, omniscient third person point of view, third person object on the wall narrative and also actual narratives by Gods and odd objects. Talking of this narrative approach itself, while I appreciate the author’s attempt to innovate, this did not work out so strongly. There was no obvious reason why this form of narrative had to be chosen from a storytelling perspective except for the sake of sheer novelty. And the writing by itself did not stand out so differently between the various narratives for the reader to be able to recognize immediately who is narrating without seeing the chapter title.

The book title "Kissing Circles" was something I really liked. It is really intriguing and has the reader thinking.The explanation for this that comes around mid way through the book and the way author links it at a physical and metaphorical level was interesting. I would have probably liked to see more of the kissing circle idea thread through the story.

The starting was a bit slow and many readers may be tempted to put off the book at this stage itself. While reading about the life of trainee engineers in a software company brought back some old memories for me, I did not find these chapters particularly interesting. Nor was I too keen to learn about the competitive landscape in the software industry and tit bits about the software industry  keep popping up regularly throughout the story. If the author had started in the middle with the boat races coming in the first chapter itself, things might have been much more interesting.

The book has no strong female characters and might feel a bit misogynistic in the overall tone, especially in the sections narrated by the two north Indian boys. But then that is exactly how the mindset of young Indian engineering graduates tends to be. I can vouch for that having been through that phase. So it can be justified as a realistic portrayal of the characters he has made the protagonists of his story.

In terms of plot and narrative, I feel he could have done a much better job in the sequencing of events, blending exposition with the story line, deciding between realism and fantasy, choosing which events to highlight and which to push to the background etc. A strong developmental editor would have really helped in all these elements and added much value.

Overall a light breezy read that I would recommend to most people. If someone doesn't find the initial few pages interesting, I would suggest to skim through and hang on till at least till the boat races make their appearance.

The book can be purchased here on Amazon.

An Elf's Lament

The dark one is rising. We stand by and watch helplessly. We alone cannot stand against him. He is too powerful for us. We need the other races to stand with us when we make the final stand against him. Especially the dwarves! If the dwarves stand with us, we have a good chance of preventing his ascent. Together we can banish him from the earth. But the filthy dwarves just don’t understand. Why do they not see the greater cause? Why do they still continue to hold those petty grudges? We have treated them with disdain in the past and have caused lot of affront to their race. But there was no real malice on our part. It was just the natural order of things. As higher races, we have greater understanding of the world, a greater empathy towards all life. The behavior of creatures driven by their baser instincts sometimes infuriates us. In our frustration, we might have said or done things that they may have perceived as insults to them. But do these kind of minor irritants matter when we are faced with such grave danger?

Many of our elves also do not understand the need to bring around the dwarves. They still continue to rile against the dwarves and spew venom against them day in an day out. Don’t they understand we need the dwarves if we are to have a real fighting chance against the dark one? I absolutely agree with them that dwarves are a filthy, violent race with a natural disposition towards evil. But still shouldn’t we at least make an attempt to bring them over? I have tried talking to them and telling them to tone down their rhetoric. They say the dwarves just do not care about the future of the world. That they are unconcerned about what evil the dark one will wreak upon this earth. That we need to consider them as minions of the dark one and go for all-out war against them. Exterminate the vermin before they go and join their master. I fully understand their sentiments. However one must see things from the perspective of the low life as well. It is not true that the dwarves do not care about anything at all. They do care. They care about their own pitiful pelts. They care about their own pathetic clans and families, their base craft and their fragile egos. The key to winning them over is to listen to them and understand them. Even a cur desires to be understood. He doesn’t just come over and fawn at your feet on his own accord. One needs to think from his perspective, his need for food and his need for love. Once you understand and throw him some crumbs, maybe even a bone and give a few pats, he is yours.

I am doing my bit to reach out to the dwarves. I have organized banquets and sent invitations to the world below asking the dwarves to come and join us. I have made it clear to them that my door is open to even the basest and filthiest of them. Still hardly any of them ever turn up. I wonder why. Is the hatred against elves so deep rooted in them? They always say we don’t respect them. We don’t treat them as equals. But when I try to reach out to them, when I attempt to humor them, they just don’t seem to respond. I even had my last messenger explicitly tell them that I would even welcome evil servants of the dark. Still not one turned up. How much more can one do?

As the days pass by, I am losing hope. The signs are becoming more ominous. We stand alone watching helplessly as the dark one looms dangerously across the horizon. The more belligerent of our kind are growing louder by the day. And rightly so given the behavior of those vile dwarves. But I am still trying to convince them to be more reconciliatory. That we need the dwarves on our side. On my part, I continue to reach out to the dwarves and keep sending out messages, even though they seem to be falling on deaf ears. I don’t know what the fate awaits the world. But till my breath holds, I shall do my part.

The Tournament

I hate this place. I totally hate this place! What a majestic being I was supposed to be and what these humans have reduced me to! We were supposed to be the king of the skies and our very appearance used to strike fear in the hearts of these puny humans. I wouldn’t know though. I have only heard the old ridgeback in the next stall talk about those times.  This stall is all I remember from the day I was born. Except of course the tournament.

Ah! The tournament! That was one of those occasions I really felt like myself. There would be an entire field for me to move around. And there would be a young human who would play with me. Even in my pathetic state, I can easily kill the human with a single swipe of my claws if I choose to. But we dragons traditionally liked to play with our food. Not that the human would be our food though. I have been advised not to get too adventurous in the games. The old Ridgeback has told me scary tales of adventurous dragons being put down for winning the tournament. Apparently it is rigged in such a way that the human always wins. If a human wins, he is celebrated. If a dragon wins, he is a put to death.   It is good exercise though as long as we don’t kill or seriously maim the human- the nearest I shall ever get to our true legacy. Anyways thinking about legacy does not help. For it is lost to us for good. From glorious hunters we were reduced to game animals – these humans hunted us mercilessly. Initially that was fine – we enjoyed the game too. More often than not it was the dragon hunter who wound up dead. Till their weapons got more powerful.

But that was not the end. From being hunted, we were tamed and made into steeds to fly the humans around the sky. But the worst was yet to come. Now the humans have better means to fly. So they have no use for us anymore. Well, not exactly. We still have some use for them. Or rather our blood does. Apparently it has magical properties. That is the sole reason they still keep us alive. Like plants. Bloody plants. Blood producing plants. That is what we are for them. That is why they don’t even give us names these days. Whoever had heard of a plant or a machine having names?

My reverie was disturbed by humans shouting outside. “We fight for the right of magical beasts to a dignified life!”

Yes! I liked the sound of it. Dignified life! For starters they could let me hunt my own food instead of feeding me bucket loads of dead fowl. The dead chickens are so bland and tasteless. Like my life. 
“This whole thing is so disgusting.  Magical people for magical animals won’t stand for it.”

Yeah! That’s the spirit. Come, my dear human. Come and get me released. I have had enough of this prison life. There is hardly room even to flap my wings. It is a wonder they have not just withered away. Apparently we dragons were famous for our fire. And I grew up without even knowing what fire was. They maintain our stalls so cold that we can hardly produce any fire. But the tournament is different. We are out in the open and we are free to give vent to all the fire that has been burning within our belly for years. I wish the tournament rules allowed us to kill the human though. That would have been fun. Come on! It is fair game. The humans are allowed to kill us. So why not the other way round?

“We find this whole idea repulsive. A magical beast is not a play thing to be used for sport. We will not allow the tournament to take place. Down with the tournament!”

What! No tournament? Is that what these humans are protesting against? And not a word against the farms? Indeed! We are not a plaything to be used for sport; we are blood producing machines. I should have known better. The tournament is a trivial thing for them. Probably the ones protesting don't even like any form of sports. But blood for their magic is a different thing, eh? When it comes to that, who care about the dignity of animals and such stuff? As they say blood is thicker than water. What else can you expect from these humans? My little pleasure also denied. I really wish I could kill some humans.  

For whom the bell tolls

A book of faces